Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Problem with Numbers

I ran across an interesting site the other day: CARM. This "christian" apologetic group has a very active message board that largely consists of "yea those Mormons are dumb." In fact they have a current thread about Mormon "Scholars". The quotes around scholars are theirs and not mine. Their tactics consist of thumping their chests, demanding answers from Mormons, and then obfuscating and disqualifying the answers of anybody that actually responds, or even dare question the presumption that Mormonism is so obviously false, and maybe the Book of Mormon IS an ancient book.

That is where I come in. I have no stomach for intense polemic debates, I got my fill in Texas as a missionary. What I did want to comment on is the problem with numbers that is posted on CARM. I spent a great deal of time searching for the quote, more time than I wanted to on a site like that(I found it, but still have trouble posting links). But the two questions they present remain valid: Are the numbers accurate in the Book of Mormon? And if the casualty numbers detailed in several of the battles are false, is the historicity of the book still valid?

My answer is yes, no, and yes. Brant Gardner has done research on the possible symbolic nature of Book of Mormon numbers. One account contains a double/same/double pattern that could be a figurative device. (Alma 2:19: 12,532 and 6,562)Other numbers could be the mesoamerica equivalent of "if I told you a million times...". Now lets assume that the people at CARM are right, and that other scholars who cite demographic impossibility are right: does that destroy the historicity of the Book of Mormon? The answer is a resounding no. In fact, having number problems would put the Book of Mormon in good company. Herodotus said the Persian army numbered in the millions. According to one scholar an army that big would have the beginning of the column in Greece before the end of the column even started! (See "On the Possibility of Reconstructing the Battle of Marathon" by N. Whatley Journal of Hellenistic Studies) Kelly DeVries has discussed the imprecise nature of Medieval military Chronicles and cites the same problems. (Journal of Medieval Military History, vol. 2) Scribal error, deliberate exaggeration, and a use of numbers as a colloquium (I told you a million times)explain the "wrong" numbers in the Book of Mormon better than the other theory (Jo Smith making it up) and places it on a firm foundation with other ancient texts. Critics will cry foul, and argue that I just said that mistakes in the Book of Mormon prove its true, that's exactly what I did because real historians ("scholars" if you will) know the limitations of their sources and accept their historicity even with those limits. I.E. I read Herodotus in spite and sometimes because of its mistakes as well as for historical knowledge.

This argument is actually a second line of defense, since the first line of defense shows that either the original number for the demographic models is wrong. (A model starting with 50 will proceed differently than a model staring with 35, and over 1000 years will make a big statistical difference) Or that the qualifying statistics used are wrong (see Steven Danderson at FAIR) Or that the original group found "others" upon their arrival and absorbed them into their community. (See Sorenson: "Did Lehi Find others" Journal of BoM studies 1/1)

This shows the need for more careful scholarship in finding out the subtle things the Book of Mormon has to say. Using straw men based on shallow reading of the text to suit a "christian" goal of tearing down a religion is sad. More so when there are a great number of studies that have been done by scholars honestly examining what the Book of Mormon has to say concerning demographics and causality figures.

And there are more issues that historians can look at. A. Brent Merrill presented a case for a decimal organization of Nephite armies. (see the book, Warfare in the Book of Mormon) Future studies can examine the qualifying descriptions and the few express numbers to suggest army size. Scholars can then take the tentative demographic studies already completed and compare it to army size (decimal armies) and casualty reports, to examine orders of battle. So the real problem with numbers is not the wild statistics that pseudo scholars use to beat Mormons with, but the lack of in depth research concerning Nephite army size, casualty rates, and its comparison to demographic trends already presented.
Update: Thanks to meeting Mormon Heretic I can now post links
Update two: But in updating the link I deleted something that makes the link useless. Sorry.

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